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World View
prof. Mieczysław Ryba 09/25/2010

Romania in Polish foreign policy 1918 – 1939


Poland and Romania emerged victorious as countries and nations from the First World War. The Polish state regained independence after 123 years under foreign rule as a result of the unexpected defeat of all the three partitioners (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia). Having fought on the Entente side during the war, Romania gained large territories from Hungary (Transylvania) on the one side, and Russia (Bessarabia) on the other. Because of this, both countries entered the interwar period under serious threat. Poland was threatened by Germany and Soviet Russia, which did not accept the Versailles order, while Romania by Hungary and Soviet Russia. Thus, both countries wanted the Versailles order to be maintained; they both had at least one common enemy.

It should also be added that the tradition of cooperation between the two nations had a long history. In the Jagiellonian times, Poland had a strong tradition of interest in the Balkans, particularly Moldavia. All this was set in the context of a centuries-long struggle with Turkey. Turkish invasions were the biggest curse of the whole Balkan Peninsula for many centuries, and the First Polish Republic considered itself a bulwark of Christendom, defending Europe against the spread of Islam. In the 15th, 16th and 17th century, the Republic of Poland was engaged in a dynastic and political struggle for influence over whole Central Europe. It can be said that it was a consistent defence of Europe against the influence of Asian civilisation. The mechanisms of Asian civilisation were characteristic not only of Turkey, but also of Russia, which was, to a large extent, under the cultural influence of Mongolia. The mission of Poland was thus defined in terms of the defence of Latin civilisation against the forces of barbarian Asia.

Polish foreign policy in the first years after the restoration of independence

In May 1919, the conflict between Poles and Ukrainians finally ended. The aim of the fighting was to keep Eastern Galicia under the control of Poland, and was also connected with a strong desire of the Polish authorities to establish a border with Romania.[1] This border gave Poland the opportunity to get in contact with the West at a time when neither the Germans nor Czechs offered Poland such an opportunity. It should be added that the Romanian authorities aided the Poles in fighting against the forces of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. In May 1919, the Romanian army seized a part of Eastern Galicia (Pokuttia), only to hand this territory over to Poland in August 1919.[2]

The cooperation of Poles and Romanians aimed at ensuring security against Soviet Russia played an even greater role. In 1918, the Romanian army took advantage of Russia’s weakness caused by the ongoing revolution, and seized Bessarabia, thereby establishing the northeastern border on the Dniester. It was all the more justified because the local population was closely related to the Romanians. Although Western countries recognised Romania’s sovereignty over this territory (1920), Russia did not want to relinquish control over this region by any means.[3] All this had great significance for Poland, which was practically on the brink of war with the Bolsheviks, who wanted to take control of Polish territories and certainly deprive Poland of the Eastern borderlines. Identification of a common enemy obviously laid the foundations for forging an alliance between Poland and Romania.[4]

The conception of a Polish policy towards Central Europe was based on the desire to reach agreement with all its partners in Central Europe so as to create a power in Central Europe which would counter the German and Bolshevik threat. Naturally, Poland could find support in the countries of the Little Entente, i.e. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania. The Little Entente was formed on the initiative of France and was intended as a Central European counterpart of the big, West European Entente, that is, the countries of the anti-German coalition. The greatest concern of the countries of the Little Entente was related to the potential revisionist plans of Hungary, which had given up large territories to Romania and Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Warsaw, however, wanted to appease the conflict between Hungary and the Little Entente by including Hungary in a broad Central European alliance.[5] Later, in the 1930s, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck said in his policy statement: “Countries on the Danube are almost our neighbours, or in any case, they can be found within the scope of our traditional and current relations. The proposal for all the countries, without discriminating any one, to enter into a treaty aimed at a kind cooperation and removal of local clashes has been well received by our government.”[6] However, such a reconciliation was simply impossible at that time. The entry of Poland into the Little Entente would not be approved of by Czechoslovakia. On the one hand, Prague wanted to be the most important representative of the interests of Paris, which might not be possible if Poland joined the coalition (Poland was a much bigger country than Czechoslovakia). On the other hand, Poland and Czechoslovakia were then involved in an unresolved border dispute over Cieszyn Silesia. All this caused Poland not to enter into the Little Entente (which was what Romania really wanted). Still, efforts were made to reach a bilateral agreement between Poland and Romania.[7] A Polish historian, Wiesław Balcerak describes the situation in this way: “Good relations of Poland with Hungary and Romania were to some extent deprecated by antagonism between these countries. If we add to this the alarming state of the relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakian-Hungarian neighbourhood fraught with conflicts and the policy of Prague opposing the Polish plans of integration, then it turns out that founding the security of the Republic of Poland on an alliance with a group of countries situated to the south of the Carpathians at the beginning of the interwar period encountered a virtually inextricable tangle of conflicts, antagonisms and contradictory interests.”[8]

At the end of 1920, the political talks between the diplomatic representatives of Poland and Romania became very effective and gathered momentum. The military talks ended shortly before Poland signed a peace treaty with Soviet Russia in March 1921. Romania intended to reach an agreement after the war definitely came to an end. On 3 March 1920, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Sapieha and the Romanian Minister Ionescu signed “The Convention for the Defensive Alliance between the Republic of Poland and the Kingdom of Romania.” Also the Chiefs of the Genral Staff of both countries, Gen. Tadeusz Rozwadowski as well as Gen. Constantin Christescu signed a secret military convention. Both states committed themselves to providing assistance in the event that one of them was attacked. They also agreed not to become a party to separate treaties with the former Central Powers without prior consultation. The Poles were mainly concerned about the relations with Germany, while the Romanians were interested in the relations with Hungary.[9] What was also of special importance for Poland was the provision about the possibility of transporting supplies via Romania if transit through other countries was impossible. Such was the case during the Polish-Soviet War in 1920 when the transit of French military supplies was blocked by Czechoslovakia, and reached Poland via the Black Sea through the agency of Romania.[10] It is necessary to add that the ratification of the treaty took place in 1921.

In 1922, Russia and Germany concluded the Treaty of Rapallo, clearly directed against the Versailles order in Europe. Polish diplomacy tried to counterbalance this treaty by a broad Central European alliance. Then, Soviet diplomacy made attempts to prevent this plan by inviting particular Central European countries to disarmament negotiations.[11] Despite these efforts, Polish-Romanian relations were improving. In September 1922, Bucharest played host to the Chief of State Józef Piłsudski. On 16 September, Piłsudski and the Chief of the Romanian General Staff Constantin Christescu signed a new military convention, which specified the provisions of the convention of 1921. It stipulated that one party must immediately go to war in case of an invasion of the other party.[12] Thus, it can be said that Soviet efforts did not weaken in any way the Romanian-Polish alliance; on the contrary, this alliance was becoming more concrete.

In 1923, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Dmowski (the representative of the right-wing national camp) tried to extend the Polish-Romanian alliance not only over the question of the Soviet threat, but also over the German question. In a special instruction Dmowski wrote: “It is with good reason that I would like to receive from the Romanian government a written statement that the alliance and military convention are also in effect if the Eastern neighbour attacked Poland in collaboration with the Western neighbour or in case of an invasion by the latter.”[13] Poland did not receive any written assurance from the Romanian partner. In 1924, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs gave only a verbal confirmation that in the event of a double attack by Germany and the USSR, Romania would give assistance to Poland; however, if Poland was attacked by Germany alone, Romania would remain neutral.

In 1921, Polish diplomacy made considerable steps to aid the formation of a French-Romanian alliance. Such an alliance would entail France’s commitment to support these two Central European countries (Poland and Romania) in the event of war with the USSR. It was intended as an extension of the French obligations taken on under the 1921 treaty with Poland, which was concluded as an anti-German agreement. France, however, did not want to take on obligations with regard to the potential invasion of the USSR, as a result of which the diplomatic efforts of Poland concerning the French-Romanian alliance proved futile.[14]

Development of Polish-Romanian alliance

The greater the cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union, aimed at the negation of the Versailles order, was becoming, the closer to one another Poland and Romania tried to be. On 24 March 1926, a five-year guarantee treaty was signed in Bucharest, which replaced the treaty of 1921. The new document detailed the obligations of both parties in the event of foreign aggression. The Germans and Soviets disapproved of the strengthening of the alliance between the two Central European states, and on 24 April 1924 signed a treaty of alliance and neutrality in Berlin, whose provisions clearly referred to the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922.[15]

At the end of 1929 and the beginning of 1930, Poland and Romania strengthened their relations even further by concluding sixteen different international agreements concerning the economy, transit as well as the army. Military agreements were extended by several years.[16] Undoubtedly, Romania was becoming the most important partner of Poland in Central Europe. The Czech-Polish relations suffered after Zaolzie was taken over by the Czechs. Lithuania demanded that the Vilnius Region be returned, Germany and the USSR strove for revision of the Versailles order, while there were practically no disputes between Poland and Romania. Possibly only danger was differently defined. The Romanians saw it coming from the east, whereas the Poles recognised the danger of attack from both the east and the west. Romania also became the main transit country for the transport of supplies from Western Europe to Poland in the event of war.

In the 1930s, Poland and Romania increased their economic cooperation. The transit between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea played a major role in this process. Romanian goods and commodities coming for the Middle East were transported to the seaport in Gdynia and to Gdańsk. In the opposite direction, towards Romania, Polish seaports transferred Scandinavian and German goods. In order to encourage freight traffic, transit duties on Polish commodities in Romanian ports and on Romanian commodities in Polish ports were kept low.[17] There were attempts to strengthen this transit route by creating, e.g. plans for an inland water route linking the Baltic with the Black Sea. It was mainly about linking the Vistula, San, Dniester and Danube rivers by means of a system of canals. The realisation of this project would certainly foster the development of the Romanian Black Sea port of Gałącz, and protect the Polish interests by increasing the capacity of the southbound arteries and routes to the Middle East. The aim of these efforts was to face the competition from the German plans to build an Elbe-Oder-Danube waterway.[18] Poland was also involved in a project to build a Romanian-Bulgarian bridge on the Danube, which would enable the construction of a transit route from the Baltic to the Aegean Sea.[19] Although these projects were not carried out, they showed the extent of the planned investments, which would give a chance to implement the Intermarum (Międzymorze) plan, consisting in forming a coalition of states in Central Europe. The importance of these plans was best reflected in the anxiety of Germany, which perceived the Balkans as its area of influence, which was described during the First World War in the so-called Mitteleuropa plan.

In 1932, Poland signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR, trying to take advantage of the increasing anxiety in Moscow caused by the growing power of the Nazis in Germany (it should be remembered that Hitler openly spoke about his plan to clear living space for the Germans in the east). The Polish authorities wanted Romania to conclude a similar pact so that the Polish-Romanian relations would not suffer. As a result of an adverse reaction of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Nicolae Titulescu to such propositions, the Romanian-Soviet non-aggression pact was not formed. It does not mean, however, that the Romanian-Polish relations suffered.[20] At that time, Poland tried to pursue a policy of equal distance towards Moscow and Berlin, which is why it signed a similar non-aggression pact with Germany in 1934. The aim was to maximally delay the outbreak of a possible conflict with both totalitarian states.

In the 1930s, Polish diplomacy persistently developed the so-called Intermarum plan, i.e. a plan to form a coalition of states in Central Europe, which were capable of defending themselves against the German and the Soviet threat. This plan involved countries from the Baltic (Finland) down to the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea (Romania, Greece).[21] In 1934, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs drew up a very interesting document, i.e. a memorandum entitled “The Principles of the Polish Policy in Central Europe and the Balkans.” This document alluded to the tradition of the Jagiellonian Poland from the 15th and 16th centuries when the Republic of Poland gained space for independent development in Central Europe. At that time, both Moscow and the German Reich had no authority over this area. The author of this document described the situation in the following way: “It is not only our country that is in a special situation because of the location of Poland between two large states: Germany and Russia (...). In this part of Europe, we find a great number of medium-sized and smaller countries in a similar situation (...). In that case, whether we like it or not, we have to become a kind of signpost for these states and show them how important it is to create such conditions which would neutralise as much as possible the influence of superpowers, and would enable these states to gain freedom of development (...).”[22] In the 1930s, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck was deeply preoccupied with the idea of Intermarum, to which he devoted a lot of attention and effort. This project had solid historical foundations, but also looked to the future. A famous Polish historian specialising in the international politics of the interwar period, Piotr Łossowski writes: “In reality, the stance of the states that Minister Beck had in mind was varied, and at best not so determined as to support his proposal and bind with Poland to develop closer but uncertain relations. On the one hand, Poland was too little of a political, military, and particularly economic power to gain respect and trust, and to attract as distant countries as Yugoslavia at one end of Europe and Finland at the other. On the other hand, these states were afraid that joining Intermarum, affiliating themselves in some way with Poland may bring them into unexpected, dangerous conflicts, and dangers which, it was thought, in the case of Poland came most clearly from the neighbouring countries.”[23] In the interwar period Poland indeed seemed most obviously threatened by Germany as well as the USSR. Practically no other Central European state was under such serious threat. Łossowski continues: “Apart from the fact that Poland did not have enough power to back it, the idea of Intermarum was characterised by a lack of a clear common interest. The states of East-Central Europe which were created or fundamentally reformed after the war were beset with a host of their own problems. They were a real mosaic of various interests, in which it was difficult or simply impossible to find a common denominator, which might form the core of an ‘inter-sea’ agreement.”[24] It is thus evident that the vision of Intermarum in the interwar period was a long-range project, whose realisation would take years. Poland in the interwar period was not a power that could influence so many states, bringing them effectively together around itself. On the other hand, there is no doubt that it was probably the only project at that time which give the countries situated between Germany and Russia a chance to defend their independence. It was to be seen very soon, during the German and Soviet invasion of the Central European countries during the Second World War. It is necessary to add that in the interwar period Poland an Romania laid the foundations for the Intermarum coalition (between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea). It took place in the political, military as well as the economic sphere.

The view of the Polish authorities on the agreement between Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania, called the Little Entente, which was still in effect in the 1930s, was highly sceptical. The Poles thought that the signing of such an agreement because of an alleged threat from Hungarian revisionism was not adequate to the real threats faced by particular states. Yugoslavia was aware of the great danger coming from fascist Italy, Czechoslovakia perceived Germany as a threat, while Romania feared the Soviets. These states did not intend to help one another in these matters. In comparison, the Polish-Romanian alliance had a firm basis and seemed perfectly rational.[25]

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, against a background of the division of Czechoslovakia, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck went to Romania on 18 October 1938 to convince Romanian politicians to forge an alliance between Poland, Romania and Hungary, aiming at the creation of a power in Central Europe which would counter the imminent threat. However, due to the past conflicts between Romania and Hungary as well as some reluctance on the part of Romania and Hungary to become involved in a conflict with Germany, the alliance was not formed.[26]


The cooperation between Poland and Romania in the interwar period was very intense. On the one hand, it was an attempt to defend Central Europe against the expansion of Russia and Germany, but on the other, in a broader sense, particularly in the 1930s, it was also the defence of European civilisation against the spread of two totalitarian systems, Hitler’s National Socialism and Bolshevik Communism. Despite the fact that these systems reached the height of their power, none of the Central European countries, neither Poland nor Romania, adopted the criminal practices coming from the east and west. In September 1939, the alliance between the Polish and the Romanian state did not translate into a common, defensive military action. It was mainly due to the fact that the two allied countries were too weak to defend themselves from both the German invasion (attack on Poland on 1 September 1939) and the Soviet invasion (attack on 17 September 1939). The two countries also faced different threats (the Romanians feared the Soviets more than anybody else, the Poles were threatened both by Germany and the Soviets). It should however be highlighted that in September 1939, Polish refugees, military men as well as civilians, received enormous help from the Romanians. With such aid the Polish army could quickly be formed in the west to continue fighting the invader.

Finally, it is worthwhile to discuss briefly these two totalitarian systems looming over Central Europe. In the article entitled “Socialism as a religion”, published in the 1920s in Przegląd Powszechny, a Polish Jesuit, Jan Urban wrote: “The deep meaning of the struggle between Christianity, or more precisely Catholicism, and the red flag lies in the fact that socialism attempts to become a religion, that it lays claim to becoming the only religion of the future. (...) This is not a paradox: socialism is a religion despite countless statements that religious matters are alien to it; it is, so to say, an ‘inverted’ religion, a religion like a frock coat turned inside out, a materialistic religion without God; after all, it is a kind of religion.”[27] This socialist quasi-religion manifested itself not only in the attempts to eliminate all disloyalty or dissent by means of terror, but also in the whole culture, as this ideology laid claim to controlling all spheres of human life. This could best be seen in the educational system where the Communists had a ideal opportunity to form a ‘New Man’.[28] The salvation of humankind in a communist state was a Utopian task undertaken by Soviet ideologists and politicians. The programme of the ‘salvation’ of Europe had a high priority. However, Poland and Romania were a major obstacle to conducting revolution on the whole European continent.

This communist salvation was attained through terror. Huge, socialist social engineering gave rise to a vast number of concentration camps, which provided ideal conditions for the creation of a New Man. Richard Pipes writes: “Thus, a modern concentration camp emerged, an enclave in which human beings lost all their rights and became the slaves of the state. This raises the question about the difference between the status of the prisoner of a concentration camp and an average Soviet citizen.”[29] The lack of a noticeable difference between an average citizen and a prisoner of a concentration camp points to an unambiguous thesis: the whole communist state is one big concentration camp. This is the practical effect of realising a socialist Utopia: instead of a heaven on earth, millions of people were given hell.

It should be pointed out that at that time there was a marked resemblance between National Socialism and Bolshevik Communism. The Communists espoused the class struggle, while the Nazi advocated the race struggle. Both systems were extremely mechanistic, they both reduced the role of an individual, subordinating it to the mass (the state). Both the Communists and the National Socialists strove to create a heaven on earth through the victory of Utopia they propagated.[30] The method to ensure the victory of a racist Utopia was to use terror similar to the Soviet terror.[31] Hitler’s ideology also had a quasi-religious character and was characterised by great hostility towards Christianity.[32] Another essential characteristic was the cult of personality (Führer), also present in other socialisms.[33] From a Polish perspective, the crimes of both systems are symbolised by the massacre of the Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyn and the concentration camp in Auschwitz built by the Germans (the Nazis).

It seems that a brief discussion of the Nazi and the Communist threat we faced in the interwar period serves as a good illustration of the importance of the alliance forged by Poland and Romania.

The author is an Associate Professor
at the Catholic University of Lublin
Head of Department of
History of Political Systems KUL

Translated by Marta Kubat

[1] M. K. Kamiński, M. J. Zacharias, Polityka zagraniczna II Rzeczypospolitej 1918 – 1939 (Warsaw: Młodzieżowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1987), p. 36.

[2] Ibid., p. 70.

[3] Ibid., p. 70.

[4] W. Balcerak, Strategiczne uwarunkowania polityki zagranicznej II Rzeczpospolitej (1918 – 1925), in: Polska i kraje Europy środkowo-wschodniej XIX – XX wiek. Studia ofiarowane Piotrowi Łossowskiemu w siedemdziesiątą rocznicę urodzin (Warsaw: Instytut Historii PAN, 1995), p. 166.

[5] A. Garlicka, Polska a pakt dunajski, w: Polska i kraje Europy środkowo-wschodniej XIX – XX wiek. Studia ofiarowane Piotrowi Łossowskiemu w siedemdziesiątą rocznicę urodzin (Warsaw: Instytut Historii PAN), 1995, p. 366.

[6] J. Beck, Przemówienia, deklaracje, wywiady 1931 – 1939 (Warsaw 1939), p. 149; cf.: A. Garlicka, Polska…, p. 367.

[7] M. K. Kamiński, M. J. Zacharias, Polityka zagraniczna…, p. 71.

[8] W. Balcerak, Strategiczne uwarunkowania… , p. 166.

[9] M. K. Kamiński, M. J. Zacharias, Polityka zagraniczna…, pp. 71 – 72.

[10] Ibid., p. 72.

[11] Ibid., p. 85.

[12] Ibid., p. 86.

[13] As cited in: ibid., p. 89.

[14] Ibid., p. 90.

[15] Ibid., pp. 100 – 101.

[16] Ibid., pp. 140 – 141.

[17] P. Łossowski, Polska w Europie i świecie 1918 – 1939. Szkice z dziejów polityki zagranicznej i położenia międzynarodowego II Rzeczpospolitej (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1990), pp. 72 – 73.

[18] E. Znamierowska-Rakk, Sprawa połączenia Bałtyku z Morzem Czarnym i Morzem Egejskim w polityce II Rzeczpospolitej, in: Polska i kraje Europy środkowo-wschodniej XIX – XX wiek. Studia ofiarowane Piotrowi Łossowskiemu w siedemdziesiątą rocznicę urodzin (Warsaw: Instytut Historii PAN, 1995), pp. 288 – 290.

[19] E. Znamierowska-Rakk, Sprawa połączenia Bałtyku…, pp. 296 – 297.

[20] M. K. Kamiński, M. J. Zacharias, Polityka zagraniczna…, pp. 143 – 144.

[21] J. Faryś, Koncepcje polskiej polityki zagranicznej 1918 – 1939 (Warsaw 1981), p. 129.

[22] P. Łossowski, Polska…, pp. 204 – 205.

[23] Ibid., p. 206.

[24] Ibid.

[25] M. K. Kamiński, M. J. Zacharias, Polityka zagraniczna…, pp. 222 – 223.

[26] Ibid., pp. 250 – 251.

[27] J. Urban, Socjalizm jako religia, in: W obronie niepodległości. Antykomunizm w II Rzeczpospolitej (Kraków 2009), p. 91; cf.: M. Ryba, Naród a polityka. Myśl społeczno-polityczna twórców ruchu narodowego w okresie międzywojennym (Lublin 1999), pp. 132 – 134.

[28] M. Ryba, Szkoła w okowach ideologii (Lublin 2007), p. 87.

[29] R. Pipes, Rewolucja rosyjska (Warsaw 1994), trans. T. Szafar, p. 663.

[30] In the case of Hitler, it was about the victory of National Socialism, after which there will be “harmony between the multilingual elements of one, great ruling race.” A. Bullock, Hitler – studium tyranii, trans. T. Evert, (Warsaw 1997), p. 343.

[31] On 18 September 1922 Hitler said: “The Marxists teach: if you are not a brother to me, I will smash your head. Our motto must be: if you are not a German, I will smash your head; since we are convinced that we will not win without fight. We have to fight with our ideas, and if need be, also with our fists.” ibid., p. 72.

[32] R. Grunberger, Historia społeczna Trzeciej Rzeszy, trans. W. Kalinowski, (Warsaw 1994), pp. 519 – 540.

[33] Ibid., pp. 92 - 112