Josef Beck

The first man to oppose Adolf Hitler



Josef Beck was a highly influential figure in European politics during the interwar period. A close adjutant to Marshal Josef Piłsudski and later Foreign Affairs Minister, Beck made his world history as the first man to stand up to the aggressive ambitions of Adolf Hitler.


His career began almost as soon as he came of age. He quit his commercial studies in Vienna in order to join the Polish Legions in 1914 (Military formation organised by the Austrian Government intended to play on the anti-Russian sentiments of Poles and their hopes of independence. It soon shook off its dependence on the Austrian command and became an openly pro free Polish state initiative under the leadership of Josef Piłsudski). Beck immediately became one of Piłsudski’s most trusted collaborators. After the great war, when Poland regained independence in 1918 he joined regular Polish army climbing the steps of military hierarchy.


Starting from left:

Josef Beck,

Josef Piłsudski,


Italian ambassador

Albert Martin Franklin

In 1926 Josef Beck played a significant role in the internal coup d’etat commenced by his old mentor, Josef Piłsudski, who became weary of the chaos produced by the budding democracy. It was then that Beck shifted his attention from the army to politics. During the formation of the new government he was briefly put in the office of the Vice Prime Minister but shifted to the department of foreign affairs just three months later. The next two years proved Beck’s gift as a charismatic leader. While formally he occupied the position of Vice minister, in fact he held the actual power in Polish foreign policies. This became unmistakably clear when Józef Beck advanced with the Polish and British naval forces to the port of the free city of Gdansk, which had refused cooperation with his government. The highly controversial manoeuvre resulted in successful extension of military cooperation between the two countries.


Soon after this event he was promoted to the position of Minister, and focussed his work on achieving a balanced diplomatic strategy aimed at maintaining peaceful relations with both Soviet Union and the more and more radical Germany. One of the most important tenets during his term of office was the strict policy concerning the East Pact. Beck opposed that project which professed to strengthen the relations of east European nations for common military defense. His reluctance sprang from his distrust of the USSR. Believing it a paramount threat to Poland Josef Beck always avoided cooperation with the eastern power. Accordingly, he strove to strengthen relations with Great Britain and France. This proved a difficult task, filled with diplomatic arguments and political differences.


Jozef Beck was married twice, with the first marriage ending in divorce. His second wife, Jadwiga Salkowska was an ideal partner for a diplomat, fluent in several foreign languages, well travelled and possessing all the talents of a social hostess. It was often said that without her, his career would never have reached such heights as it did.


After six long year of Beck's leadership in the ministry of foreign affairs all seemed to go as planned for the Polish politician. He secured a non-aggression agreements with both the Soviets and the Germans, informally allied himself with the western powers, and increased the size of Polish forces. Unfortunately in 1938, the already influential leader of the NSDAP Adolf Hitler decided to finally expand to the east. After the “Anschluss” of Austria and partition of Czechoslovakia, both achieved without military engagement, he put forward similar claims to Poland. He requested cessation of several of its northern territories, and annexation of the free city of Gdansk directly into the Reich. Soon after this event Józef Beck made a decision that would determine the world's fate for generations to come. Rather than appease Hitler by further concessions he turned down his demands in a declaration later echoed in spirit by speeches of Winston Churchill. On the 5th May 1939 he made this speech in the Polish parliament:


“Peace is a valuable and desirable thing. Our generation, which has shed its blood in several wars, surely deserves a period of peace. But peace, like almost everything in this world, has its price, high but definable. We in Poland do not recognize the conception of "peace at any price." There is only one thing in the life of men, nations and States which is without price, and that is honour."


To all concerned it became obvious that a war was unavoidable.


Finally at the beginning of September 1939 the Nazi troops entered Poland and advanced towards its capital. Polish contingency plans assumed a prolonged defence in the west, but no one predicted the Soviet offensive from the east. While Poland was fighting the two powers, England and France could not follow their declarations of war with active military support. Within a few weeks Poland fell and Beck was forced to escape to Romania. There he was detained and prevented from further political activity by both the local authorities and his Polish political rival, Władysław Sikorski, who headed the Polish government in exile installed in the UK. He remained there until his death of tuberculosis in June 1944.


Josef Beck with Julius Seljamaa (July 1934)

Józef Beck died leaving behind a legacy of controversial, but undoubtedly brave actions in a impossible situation. He knew that there was no peaceful way out and that Poland was bound to lose but he also ended concessions and created a situation that led to the Allies’ eventual victory over Hitler.


Jadwiga Beck survived her husband by thirty unhappy years. An expat, she tried to find a home outside Poland in several countries including Egypt, Turkey, UK, and Holland, before finally settling down in Brussels where she worked as a cleaning lady. Her memoirs “Kiedy byłam Ekscelencją” (“When I was called Your Excellency”) published in Poland in 1990 remain a goldmine of information on the social and diplomatic history of the Polish interwar period.



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